‘A troubled young man commits the perfect crime – the murder of a vile pawnbroker no one will miss. Raskolnikov is desperate for money but convinces himself that his motive for the killing is to benefit mankind. So begins one of the greatest novels ever written, a journey into the criminal mind, a police thriller, and a philosophical meditation on morality and redemption.’
One of the reasons I was first attracted to this book is that when I read the blurb I was startled by how similar the basic premise was to that of my favourite novella, ‘Markheim’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. The young man who murders a pawnbroker in order to steal money only to be confronted with the immorality of his actions is an incredibly interesting tale and one that has captured my interest ever since reading the Stevenson novella.
But Dostoevsky does something very different with his murderer than Stevenson does. In ‘Markheim’, young Markheim is immediately faced with the horror of his actions in the form of a meeting with the Devil himself. However, in ‘Crime and Punishment’, the student Raskolnikov sinks into a sickness, that those around him liken to a sort of madness, and is forced to cope while ordinary life still continues around him and the hunt for the murderer passes him by more than once. In the end of ‘Markheim’, Markheim gives himself up to the authorities in the clarity of mind that he is repentant and has made the choice of good over evil. Raskolnikov, on the other hand, admits his guilt because he knows the police are already convinced of his guilt and he feels he has no other option. It is not until over a year after the murder, when he has begun his eight years sentence of hard labour in Siberia that he realises his love for Sonya and begins to hope for a brighter future and, I believe, truly repents his crime.
Now of course the two stories have far more differences than similarities, but I think it worth mentioning the similarities purely because it makes the unique decisions Dostoevsky made far more interesting. For instance, the inclusion of Sonya and her family was a very interesting choice as it allowed a contrast to Raskolnikov’s situation. Both were from poor families but Sonya was forced to become a prostitute to support her family while Raskolnikov became a drain on his, having to have them send him money so he could survive and even then getting into copious amounts of debt by not paying his rent and pawning any items they owned of any worth. Sonya also felt social shame at her circumstances but it was made clear that her sin was a noble one done to support her family, while Raskolnikov’s sin didn’t benefit his family and instead just ended in the destruction of two women and the blackening of his own soul. However, together they helped each other through their sins as by the end of the novel Sonya, as far as we know, was no longer selling her company and Raskolnikov was forced to repent and atone for his sin.
One of my favourite things about this book is the in depth look into Raskolnikov’s psychology and his frequent mood swings leading to dips into madness. I really enjoyed the insight into his mind that not only pushed the action forward but also allowed us a unique perspective on the action. The clear breakdown of his thoughts that lead him to believe he was being set up by the police in their interviews and that they were taunting him really drew the reader and made him an intriguing, if not a sympathetic character. In order to have a villain as the protagonist you need to make up for the fact the reader won’t like him, and Dostoevsky certainly made him interesting enough to do that for me.
All in all, I did like this book although it was a slow trudge for me and it took me far longer to finish it than I would have liked. I’m very glad that the next book I’ve picked out is considerably smaller, although no happier.